WASHINGTON — The United States and Europe are poised to seek harsher U.N. financial sanctions against Iran if it fails to meet this weekend's deadline to accept an international offer of negotiations in exchange for freezing its nuclear program, diplomats said Friday.
It's uncertain how, or even whether, Iran will formally respond to the offer. Authorities in Tehran have given no sign that they're willing to accept the offer of a "freeze for a freeze" — to cap Iran's uranium enrichment at current levels in exchange for a moratorium on further sanctions against it.
A snub by Iran could open a new chapter in the long-running confrontation as President Bush enters his final months in office. While diplomats plan to push for new sanctions, Israel's leaders and Bush administration hawks, led by Vice President Dick Cheney, argue that military strikes against Iran's nuclear facilities must be considered.
"It's clear (Iran) has not complied with the international community's demand to stop enriching uranium. We, the United States, will work with our allies to come up with another resolution in the Security Council," Richard Grenell, a spokesman for the U.S. mission to the United Nations, told McClatchy.
What new sanctions will be sought hasn't yet been decided, U.S. and European officials said. In the past, it's sometimes taken months to get agreement on new U.N. action from China and Russia, who are unenthusiastic about sanctions.
But one idea under discussion is to target Iran's reliance on imported gasoline and other petroleum products. Despite its vast oil reserves, Iran lacks refining capacity and imports much of its gasoline. Sanctions could target shipping directly or dissuade insurers from insuring shipments to Iran.
The idea has the backing of some Israeli and U.S. officials but is controversial, because it could hurt Iran's citizens as much as it would their leaders.
The international community offered the "freeze for a freeze" to Iran two weeks ago at a Geneva meeting in which a senior U.S. diplomat, Undersecretary of State William Burns, was present for nuclear talks for the first time.
Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and the United States offered to suspend consideration of further sanctions for six weeks in return for Iran not expanding its enrichment of uranium that can be used for nuclear weapons.
Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said this week that the country wouldn't be dissuaded from its nuclear program, which Iran says is aimed at generating electricity, not making weapons. Diplomats at Iran's U.N. mission weren't available for comment Friday.
"I would say the Iranians sent mixed messages this week, and it's really hard to tell what the bottom line is," White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said. "And so we'll need to wait and see if they do respond formally."
"You never know what the Iranians are going to do," said a European diplomat, who requested anonymity to discuss diplomatic options.
While State Department officials say that there's still time for diplomacy to halt Iran's nuclear ambitions, Israel's leaders — who view an Iranian nuclear weapon as a threat to the country's existence — are increasingly blunt in warning that time is running out.
Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Shaul Mofaz warned Friday that Iran is on the verge of a nuclear breakthrough.
"The window of influence is becoming smaller and, I believe, is about to close," said Mofaz, a possible candidate to replace outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.
"Even diplomacy has its limits," he said at an appearance at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
The United Nations has imposed three previous rounds of sanctions on Iran over its nuclear program. They've failed to persuade Tehran to change course, but U.S. officials argue that they've compounded Iran's economic problems and prompted a debate among Iran's fractured leadership over the country's course.
(Jonathan S. Landay contributed to this article.)